How biopharma is transforming 5 jobs-hungry counties in North Carolina
As a bartender for almost two decades, Lindsey Itsou was filling glasses – and working without financial security, health insurance or a sense of direction.
“I never knew day-to-day what I was going to make,” she says. “Never mind that I didn’t have health insurance, any kind of 401(k) or retirement fund. I had no plan for the future.”
After the bar where Itsou worked closed in 2015, she wanted a real change – a career that made a difference in her life and the lives of others.
Now 41, Itsou is still filling glasses, but she’s doing it in an aseptic environment, working for a multibillion dollar pharmaceutical company that provides real health benefits.
“It feels so good. I went to get my eyes checked, and I didn’t even know how to do it,” she says, laughing about how lucky she had been living uninsured since her teenage years. “I had to call them and ask them how it works, and they got me to read my insurance card to them.”
After the bar shut down, Itsou heard about a pharmaceutical production program at Johnston Community College. Just nine months later, she began work in Clayton at the Grifols facility, where the Spanish company is now the largest private employer in the county.
Her story is becoming increasingly common in the counties just east of the Triangle.
Near generations-old tobacco fields and textile mills in eastern North Carolina, a new industry is blossoming – one that is creating thousands of opportunities for residents such as Itsou.
Five counties with a total population of 611,000 – Johnston, Nash, Edgecombe, Wilson and Pitt – have embarked on a joint effort to bill themselves as the “biopharma crescent” – in homage to their 50 years of pharmaceutical production history and present-day spike in development.
The keys to their pitch are an abundance of affordable land and a constant stream of ready-made manufacturing employees flowing out of their industry-specific community college programs and nearby military bases. Officials in the region hope their new pitch can convince the industry that eastern North Carolina is its natural home.
It’s a bold bet for a region that suffered crushing unemployment in the Great Recession. Edgecombe County, for example, had an unemployment rate of 16.9 percent as recently as 2011 and Johnston County’s was a painful 10.1 percent that same year.
But jobs have flowed back into the region, spurred in part by a connection to an industry more associated with the core of the Triangle. Though these companies are bringing more manufacturing jobs than the white-collar positions commonly associated with the Triangle, it’s a welcome trend for counties with median household incomes ranging from $36,000 to $55,000. These jobs – averaging at $60,000 – have the potential to change the face of the region as the Triangle’s economic strength ripples across the region.
“I tell everyone that I meet, there’s hope out there,” Itsou says. “You’re not stuck.”
The biopharma crescent
Eastern North Carolina’s history with biopharmaceuticals began in 1968, when Burroughs Wellcome located in Pitt County. Now, the region has expanded to include companies such as Grifols, Novo Nordisk, Merck, Pfizer and Mayne Pharmaceutical.
Between them, an estimated 10,000 people are employed in pharmaceuticals throughout the region – and those numbers are expanding. That’s more than double the 4,500 people officials estimate are working in agriculture throughout the crescent and about half the 23,000 in traditional manufacturing.
Since 2016, regional economic developers say about $3 billion in investments and commitments have been made by existing companies, all to be realized by 2022.
To spur more growth, the officials of each county are teaming up to pitch their region as a whole.
Wilson County Economic Development Executive Director Jennifer Lantz – whom many credit with coining the “biopharma crescent” moniker – says their pitch is new, but the factors that have led to the development are timeless.
“A lot of companies have expanded in recent years and new companies have come in,” she says. “But it’s not that we haven’t been working on this all along; it’s that the world doesn’t realize that we’ve been working on it.”
Lantz pointed to recent expansions by Novo Nordisk, Grifols, Fresenius Kabi, Pfizer, Thermo-Fisher Scientific, Mayne Pharma and Merck as proof that companies not only want to locate to the crescent, but that they want more of it.
“Almost all of the biopharma projects that look at North Carolina are going to look at one or more of the five counties in the crescent,” she says. “That doesn’t mean they’re going to locate here, but they are going to look here. You may not know us for that, and most North Carolinians don’t know us for that, but if you work in the life sciences industry, you know where we are already.”
Why eastern North Carolina
Officials say the reason eastern North Carolina is attractive for pharmaceutical manufacturing is due to its natural resources and workforce – two factors that have remained true throughout its history with the industry.
With an abundance of undeveloped land and waterways, developers say their counties are perfect for pharmaceutical companies, which require large parcels of land and clean water for the production of drugs and sanitation of equipment.
“Not only do we have plenty of water, but it’s very low in any kind of salt,” says Wanda Yuhas, executive director of the Pitt County Development Commission. “Even when North Carolina was at the heights of its droughts, we still had plenty of water and our pharma companies didn’t have to cut back.”
In addition to the area being sandwiched between education, population and transportation centers, the land is also widely available and affordable.
Chad Henry, corporate vice president and general manager of Novo Nordisk in Clayton, says the reason the company choose to locate in Johnston County and invest heavily in expanding there is because of its workforce, infrastructure, and frankly, location outside of the hustle of Research Triangle Park.
“While the infrastructure may be in existence at a higher status in RTP, the traffic is really, really, tough,” he says. “But I would also say it’s the affordability. When you compare housing or infrastructure costs here in Johnston County versus what a house or other supplements cost in Wake or Durham counties; there’s really no comparison.”
Eastern NC ready to work
Above all though, developers and pharmaceutical officials agree, the reason that companies like the region is because there are plenty of willing employees.
Near the beginning of its relationship with the industry, counties in the crescent began to establish ways meet the workforce demands needed to fuel the incoming companies and expansions.
Since, universities and community colleges throughout the crescent have been crafting workforce development programs to train people such as Itsou for jobs in the industry.
“There’s not just one magic bullet, but there are lot of things that have been put into place that we’re now reaping the benefits of,” says Chris Johnson, executive director of Johnston County Economic Development.
For example, the program that Itsou attended, Johnston Community College’s Bioworks Program, offers a certificate program, an advanced biomanufacturing training program and a degree program.
The basic certificate program costs $185, plus textbooks. In addition to specifically training graduates for the jobs just outside the college, it also provides mock interviews, resume advising, job fairs and computer literacy classes for its enrolled students.
According to JCC officials, the percentage of graduates who go through their degree program and find a job in the industry within one year is 90 percent – unsurprising due to the massive support the program receives from existing employers. In addition to hosting multiple job fairs, the majority of the program’s equipment, including full conveyor belt systems and labs, is either donated or purchased by Novo Nordisk and Grifols.
Wilson, Nash, Edgecombe and Pitt Community College all offer similar programs. Johnston Community College produces, on average, 140 students per year through its certificate programs, as well as another 12 in its degree program.
Mark Phillips, executive director of the eastern regional office of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, says having those workforce pools thriving makes companies feel comfortable about locating in the area or expanding.
“When they walk in and they see you’re doing it right in the backyard, and these companies are right outside the fence, I think that drives a lot of impact,” he says.
In addition to the number of graduates coming out of the Triangle, East Carolina University and regional community colleges, developers say the region’s massive military presence serves as a huge employment pool for these companies.
Phillips says there are about 23,000 transitioning veterans each year, many coming out of airfields and bases in eastern North Carolina who have the technical training and work ethic to jump into advanced manufacturing.
Henry says Novo Nordisk is specifically fond of these veterans – in fact, 20 percent of its approximately 1,000- person workforce is made up of them.
“They’re very skilled when they walk in the door, they’re very dedicated with a wonderful mindset,” he says. “So we’re able to tap into that for great employees.”
A ripple effect
The rising development in the industry is the primary economic driver for many of the counties.
“There’s such a footprint here, and we’re the manufacturing base in North Carolina,” Wilson County’s Lantz says. “When you look at RTP there’s a huge footprint, but it’s so many different things: R&D, offices, distribution; when you look at our counties, it’s manufacturing.”
Additionally, she says the average wages in the industry are about $60,000 per year – $7,000 to $10,000 higher than traditional manufacturing. That’s a gold mine for counties with an average annual household income of $44,895.
The effect of the expanding industry reaches far outside of the crescent, too. According to a study conducted by Phillips and the N.C. Biotechnology Center, of 58 companies polled, employees lived in 93 of the 100 counties in North Carolina – suggesting that biotech employees are commuting from basically every corner of the state.
Phillips says that specifically in the crescent, many employees who prefer to live in more populated areas commute from areas such as the Triangle. “If we’re thinking about people in metropolitan areas like D.C. or New York or Atlanta, that drive between here and the Triangle is nothing,” he says.
The actual effect that higher wages, a larger tax base, improved infrastructure and greater access to health care has had on the crescent is hard to measure, but economic development officials and educators agree that it is fundamentally improving the lives of the residents in their counties.
Susan Kaple, the biotechnology career specialist at Johnston Community College, guided Itsou through the program and into her career at Grifols. Kaple says watching the impact these jobs have on the individuals that come through their programs is enough evidence of the good effect the industry is having.
She says the students who come in and work hard receive what is often a transformative moment in their lives and careers. Kaple says she often tells cashiers and grocers about the program in her day-to-day life.
Walking around the community college’s mock laboratory with Itsou recently, Kaple smiled as she listened to Itsou point at different pieces of equipment and passionately describe what she uses each instrument to do every day.
Kaple loves seeing students “falling into who they’re meant to be.”
“Everybody in life deserves a moment,” she says.